From the Road: Kenya, June 20106-17-10
Kenya is so interesting. In the United States, we know Kenya mainly for two of its cash crops, coffee and tea, and for its unparalleled wildlife-viewing opportunities (have you seen the lion-versus-buffalo-versus-crocodile video on YouTube?) in the country's network of national parks. Europe increasingly relies on Kenya for other agricultural products, including fruit and cut flowers, and within Africa – particularly East Africa – Kenya is a manufacturing powerhouse.
While this wasn't my first time to Kenya, I had never seen a Kenyan coffee farm or any of the numerous washing stations from which Counter Culture has purchased coffee, and I felt more than a little bit in awe as I headed north from Nairobi to the famous coffee-producing region of Nyeri. It seemed as though I recognized the name of every village we passed through – Kangocho! Gitchathaini! Tegu! – from countless cuppings, and I had to control my urge to take photographs of every road sign. With only a day in Kenya on this trip, I was limited to visiting one farmer cooperative society, and I naturally chose Thiriku, one of the co-ops from which we purchased coffee in 2009. I arrived at the washing station full of excitement and questions, of course! How many growers are in the co-op? What is the average yield per plant? Why does this coffee taste so amazing? And such.
Thiriku just began receiving coffee from their producer members for this year's fly crop – the smaller, between-harvests-harvest that is the equivalent of Colombia's mitaca – last week. There was a tiny amount of coffee on the drying table for me to photograph, but things were pretty quiet overall, and after touring the co-op's impressively-organized wet-milling operation, I sat down with the management of Thiriku in their offices and, over cups of milky tea (which I totally wasn't expecting, even though I can hear myself telling customers that Kenyan coffee growers don't drink coffee, but rather tea) discussed the desires of their 2,400 members, our coffee-purchasing philosophies, and some of the challenges that Thiriku and Counter Culture face if we want to work together in the future to buy larger amounts of coffee and develop a long-term relationship. We have all become accustomed to drinking a variety of small, exquisite lots from different Kenyan producer groups, including the ones I mentioned, each year. While we love the variety and exploration of flavor that this approach affords us, we also look longingly toward a day when we find the equivalent of our La Golondrina or 21st de Septiembre in a Kenyan cooperative.
So what's stopping us? Well, like I said, Kenya is interesting, not least because we consistently pay double, triple, or quadruple the price we pay for other Direct Trade coffees for our Kenyan coffees. These prices owe, in part, to the spectacularly complex, savory, and citrusy flavor profile of the best Kenyan coffees (like this year's Thiriku), which are unmistakable and impossible to substitute. Even more than the flavor profile, though, the prices result from the unique Kenyan coffee auction system that regulated all of Kenya's coffee sales for almost 70 years, until the opening of the "second window system" in 2006. Since then, Counter Culture has purchased most of our coffees through that window, which allows for direct negotiation and price discovery outside of the auction. Because the weekly coffee auction in Nairobi still exists and tempts growers every year with the possibility, however remote, of some random buyers falling in love with a coffee and bidding up its price at auction, we have found ourselves paying higher prices for the privilege of buying coffees directly than these coffees could ever fetch at an auction! This instability and lack of commitment can be frustrating, and don't lend themselves to the formation of a long-term relationship.
The lot we purchased from Thiriku this year is one of those top-dollar lots: exquisite in the cup and limited in quantity. In my travels and negotiations, I often explain to groups of growers that we could buy coffee from them at any price, but that a higher-priced coffee is more difficult to sell. Happily, I was able to share our experiences and puzzle over this predicament with the leadership of the Thiriku co-op.
Unfortunately, I had to leave our discussion earlier than I would have liked to in order to make my way back to the bustling capital before dark. We expect the arrival of new-crop coffees from Thiriku and a few other farmer co-op societies in the very near future, and I know that it won't be a moment too soon for lovers of these complex, savory coffees! I am excited to know Thiriku and to communicate over the course of this year, hopefully in the name of finding more great lots and building on this year's strategizing in the years to come.